String theory

Italian violins of the masters sound no different from modern violins.

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Violins from the 16–18th century—such as those famously crafted by Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu—often fetch millions at auction, as it is generally agreed that they produce a superior quality sound than any other violin. (On June 21 last year, a 1721 Stradivarius was bought by an anonymous bidder for more than $18.6 million.)

Explanations have traditionally focused on the wood, which was cured with copper, iron and chromium to deter woodworm and fungi and sourced from alpine spruce grown in the particularly cool 17th century, which led to denser timber bearing superior acoustic properties. Or the varnish, blended with honey, egg whites and gum Arabic.

But a recent study by Claudia Fritz, researcher at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, suggests that even world-class musicians cannot tell a Stradivarius from a new violin when blindfolded. And, given the choice, most prefer the sound of modern instruments.

The superiority of old Italian violins has been tested many times with varying results, but Fritz’s was the first double-blind experiment—both the researchers and the musicians wore darkened goggles. They could only detect differences between the old and new instruments based upon musical parameters such as projection, playability and tonal ‘colour’.

The popular perception of the Italian instruments is therefore likely to be due to psychoacoustics—all in the mind of the individual—a finding of little consolation to the owner of an $18 million Strad.

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